An emerging talent in the defence sector

Alanna Downing speaks to about her job and her work on diversity and inclusion which won her a Women in Defence Award.

women in defence awards 2020 winner

portrait Alanna Downing award defence

In late March, Alanna Downing won the Emerging Talent category at the Women in Defence Awards. She puts this down to two factors: the work she has been doing with her employer AWE plc on quality standards; and her campaigning on diversity and inclusion issues.

Alanna has worked for the nuclear weapons manufacturer, where she is Radiochemistry Quality Lead, for two and a half years, having done her placement during her integrated chemistry master’s degree there. Her job involves looking after quality procedures and doing quality audits and accredited checks for a group of 90 people in the radiochemistry area. She says: “My role is to champion quality and encourage innovation and positive attitudes towards change. I am responsible for ensuring quality is routinely included in all aspects of our work. This helps keep all our methods to the same high standard.”

She does this by making information and processes as easy and accessible as possible, utilising Office 365 software, and she trials any changes out herself so that she can show people how it is done. She also has frequent contact with people in the radiochemistry team so she can ensure she is passing on the correct information and can keep up enthusiasm and positivity.

Alanna started at AWE as a radiochemist and got the quality lead job around a year ago, becoming the youngest person at the organisation to take on a quality lead role. She didn’t initially apply for the role as she felt she was not experienced enough, but was talked into taking the risk to put herself forward by her manager. She has no regrets, saying she really loves her job.

Another reason she was nominated for the award is her advocacy for diversity and inclusion. This ranges from speaking out on issues affecting women in the workplace – for instance, on a panel for International Women’s Day- to her work for AWE’s N-Able-D group of which she is Vice Chair.  It’s a subject she feels passionately about, particularly when it comes to hidden disabilities.

Hidden disabilities

Alanna understands the issues due to her own experience both as a person who suffers from fibromyalgia and someone who has been recently diagnosed with Asperger’s. She says having the Asperger’s diagnosis – although it came late, as it often does for women – has helped her to understand herself better and she feels strongly that awareness of autism and acceptance in the workplace makes for better workplaces. “I want people to accept that we do things differently and that this should be celebrated – different ways of thinking are important,” she says.

Before she was diagnosed Alanna had put her anxiety and exhaustion in social settings down to the fibromyalgia which she has suffered from for over a decade. She describes it as a condition that is caused by the nervous system misfiring, causing a person’s joints and muscles to think they are under attack. It causes acute pain in her joints similar to arthritis, with the pain being so acute some days that she can’t walk while other days she is relatively ok. Other symptoms include depression, irritable bowel syndrome and chronic fatigue.

As with her Asperger’s, Alanna had to wait a while to be diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Initially doctors put her symptoms down to growing pains. At the time she was also coming to terms with online sexual assault and trauma is thought to be a trigger for fibromyalgia. Alanna believes strongly in the need to speak out about sexual assault and she has spoken openly about her experiences. “People who have been assaulted often feel shame and embarrassment, but they shouldn’t. If you are mugged you don’t blame yourself. Why should you be blamed?”  she asks.


Working from home during the pandemic has helped her a lot – she was only working from home one day a week before – and she says that the fact that others have also been working remotely has changed attitudes about remote productivity. She hopes increased remote working will help people with disabilities at work. “For me, working remotely has really increased my energy levels,” she says.

AWE has pledged to sign up to the international Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Scheme and will be hold their launch in the coming weeks. Alanna believes that the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower lanyard scheme will make “a massive difference” and says people are often quick to judge people like her who suffer from chronic pain, but are not visibly disabled, for instance, when they need to sit down or go to the toilet urgently. She says Covid has focused more attention on hidden disabilities, but mainly in connection with people who are exempt from mask wearing. She hopes that will continue and says the lanyard scheme is one way forward.

Alanna hopes to use the attention she has received through the Women in Defence Award to promote diversity and inclusion. “I am trying to use it for good,” she says. “I suffer – like many women – from imposter syndrome and I feel like I don’t deserve the award. I was over the moon to be a finalist and I am trying to prove myself worthy of the accolade.”

*You can follow Alanna on instagram at @atomicspoonie. 

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